Editorial Politics

Franken Must Take Responsibility or Resign

Jodi Jacobson

We can’t afford any unnecessary distractions from the existential crisis we are facing.

As a human being who cares for other people no matter who they are or where they live, the last year has been hell. We sit watching an ignorant president, who has openly admitted to abusing women, and his soulless, prevaricating GOP enablers dismantle every regulation and law protecting our environment, health, economy, and lives; blast through every ethical boundary that has made this country worth fighting for and held our government accountable; and actively, forcefully fan hatred of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, people with disabilities, and poor communities.

As a woman who grew up in a family rife with gaslighting and domestic violence, knowing that our president and the entire administration actively lie and dissemble about literally everything is deeply horrifying. As a woman who has faced unwanted and often persistent sexual advances and harassment in the workplace and elsewhere, the stories of sexual harassment and abuse by men from the president on through the media and entertainment industries, and in politics have been personally despairing, utterly familiar, and utterly unsurprising. Knowing that the president, and now a candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama think it’s just fine to treat women (and yes, including young teens) as interchangeable sexual objects is crushing.

What’s kept me going as I watch the shore of a country I thought I knew seemingly recede into the distance from what feels like a vessel lost at sea are those voices in Congress on whom I felt I could depend to stand up and fight for what was right; to stanch the bleeding—to literally save this country through 2018 and beyond. Don’t get me wrong: We were hardly perfect before 2016 and we weren’t going to get there anytime soon. But now we are in an existential crisis. And I hardly think the Democrats are doing enough anywhere or fighting as vociferously as they might be; I am with those who often wonder if maybe they simply just don’t get it. Still, there are champions, such as Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Pramila Jayapal, Sherrod Brown, and others who continue to stand up and fight back, and who have given me hope, though they are certainly too few in number.

And yes, there also has been Al Franken, a strong voice in the Senate for ethics, transparency, and justice.

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Over the past several weeks, however, reports have surfaced of Franken variously acting gauche and like a frat boy, touching women inappropriately, and kissing women without consent. Virtually all of these are years old, but that really is not the point. It is offensive and disgusting behavior.

Today, however, two more women have come forward to report inappropriate touching on Franken’s part. One or two reports of a hand in the wrong place among the “thousands of photos” Franken took as a candidate and now does as a senator is one thing. But the growing number of reports—six to date—reveals we have now gone from a possible incident to a pattern.

One of the new reports is from a former elected official in New England who told Jezebel that when she met Franken at an event in 2006:

“I reached out my hand to shake his.” Then, she says, “He took it and leaned toward me with his mouth open. I turned my head away from him and he landed a wet, open-mouthed kiss awkwardly on my cheek.”

“I was stunned and incredulous. I felt demeaned. I felt put in my place.” 

The second is from an army veteran, who has come forward to say that Franken groped her during a photo shoot in 2003 while he was on a USO tour where she was stationed in Kuwait.

Stephanie Kemplin, a former military police officer, told CNN:

When he put his arm around me, he groped my right breast. He kept his hand all the way over on my breast. I’ve never had a man put their arm around me and then cup my breast. So he was holding my breast on the side.

“I remember clenching up and how you just feel yourself flushed,” she said. “And I remember thinking—is he going to move his hand? Was it an accident? Was he going to move his hand? He never moved his hand.” She added: “It was long enough that he should have known if it was an accident. I’m very confident saying that.”

CNN reports that Kemplin estimated the touching lasted anywhere from five to ten seconds. She said she eventually turned her body to shift Franken’s hand off her breast before the picture was taken.

This report is consistent with those of the several other women who’ve said that Franken held their buttocks while taking photos or otherwise touched them in ways that were not appropriate in any setting with any stranger.

This is not accidental brushing against someone in a crowded space. To make sure, I held my own breast for five and then ten seconds and no, it’s not accidental. In any case, I know it myself from past experience. It is clear that Franken either has a subconscious problem with understanding physical space and appropriate behavior or simply felt he could touch women at random whenever he felt like it, and having access to lots of them gave him that opportunity. Either way, it’s not OK.

It’s tempting to brush this aside for several reasons. Franken is and has become a strong voice for justice in the Senate. No one is perfect, and he certainly is not. And as many colleagues have rightly argued in ongoing conversations and debates, if we set the standard at resignation for past acts of groping, we’d likely have to call for the immediate resignation and replacement of at least three-fourths of the Senate and U.S. House. (And I can’t argue against that either, frankly, but that is another piece.)

Multiple women have come forward saying the president sexually abused them, and he has continued to outright deny or ignore the charges, and moreover has paid no price. And this administration’s abuse of women (and many others) goes well beyond the interpersonal. The policies that Trump, Mike Pence (most particularly), and the GOP-controlled House and Senate espouse and are passing (eliminating access to abortion and contraception, drastic cuts in child care, education, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare) constitute assaults on the basic rights, lives, health, and dignity of Americans every day—a form of sexual abuse and harassment of a larger kind. Their so-called tax bill alone—a “tax scam,” as it has rightly been called—will result in the loss of health insurance to millions of people, not to mention other adverse outcomes.

We also have Roy Moore, the Senate candidate in Alabama who has been credibly accused by at least six women of having stalked and physically assaulted them when they were young women and girls half his age and of attempting to rape at least one.

The contemporaneous situations have led to all manner of false equivalencies comparing Trump and Moore to Franken’s situation, made by Republicans and perpetuated by their enablers in the media and throughout the administration, never mind the “religious” right. These things are not equivalent. They are not the same. But that no longer matters in this critical moment. A great deal must be done at many levels of law and policy and society and in corporations and in raising our children and in so many ways to make sexual harassment and abuse a thing of the past.

My point is not to compare Franken’s situation to Trump’s or Moore’s. My point also is not to suggest Franken is alone.

I’ve in fact come late to the conclusion that resignation should be on the table not because these things are equivalent but because there are larger issues at stake.

The point is the high ground. The point is getting this out of the way so we can focus on the voracious grasping for power underway by this administration. The point is ownership and accountability and setting a standard for what comes next.

Franken needs to take ownership, now. Right away. No waiting for drawn-out ethics investigations. No non-apology apologies. He has to go beyond the “gee if they felt uncomfortable, if they felt demeaned” apology and take ownership of the fact that he in fact demeaned women. It’s not just that they felt that way. He has to get up and publicly—and forcefully—say, “I did these things. Maybe I can’t even tell you why, but I did these things. And I am deeply, deeply sorry. I acted in a childish, privileged, unacceptable way, a manner in which too many men think and have thought it is OK to act. What I did was unacceptable. It was unconscionable. It was demeaning. Period. I ask the forgiveness of every woman who I made feel uncomfortable by doing things that were unacceptable. I am willing to meet each of you face-to-face to say I am sorry and take responsibility. And in moving forward, I am going back to business to be a strong, vocal senator for truth and justice and I will not shy away from doing so.”

This last piece is essential. Because to be honest, if Franken can’t muster that level of honest ownership, personal accountability, and apology, and then step back into the role we need him to play, he should resign. We can’t afford to have even one ineffective senator working on the progressive side. We can’t afford any unnecessary distractions from the existential crisis we are facing. We can’t afford to give the false-equivalency police in the media any ammunition at this time. This is about far more than Franken, and yet Franken is being called upon, or I am calling upon him, to do the right thing and take clear responsibility or move on.

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